David Jones: We get the leaders we deserve at the time

David T Jones
David vs. David
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“Leadership” is ambiguous and amorphous. It is impressionistic and situational. Trying to define it transmutes, philosophically, into definitions of “great men” and the argument whether history is made by individuals or by implacable sociopolitical forces.

Today, Canada and the United States suffer a dearth of leadership — or not. Perhaps the leaders that we have are the leaders that we want and, therefore, the leaders we deserve. Or that our leaders suffer more from a dearth of “followership” than shortcomings of their own.

Certainly, we do not have a “one leader fits all” circumstance. And surely we have multiple examples where the Peter Principle demonstrates that success or strong leadership in one area is inadequate and failure in different situations.

[ David Kilgour: Leadership: In the end, it's up to the electorate to choose their leaders ]

Many of us think of leadership first on the battlefield.

For example, the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, has a statue of an officer depicted as moving forward with an arm outstretched, urging troops to “Follow me” — the Infantry School motto. Unspoken was the World War II combat reality that a second-lieutenant's life expectancy was measured in minutes. Sometimes heroic minutes, but often simply fatal ones.

But combat leadership doesn’t transmute into political excellence — or at least not in Canada where a general officer has never become prime minister.

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Nor can we conclude that historically great leaders would suit modern requirements. Pining for the “good old days” is feckless. George Washington? A wealthy, stiffly imposing and commanding figure who never shook hands with anyone during his presidency? More suited for Mount Rushmore than Facebook. Abraham Lincoln? His high-pitched voice and bearded, homely physiognomy wouldn’t fit with prime-time television. FDR or JFK? Intrusive media would mercilessly reveal their physical debility and sexual peccadilloes.

Moreover, attitudes toward leaders are intensely politicized. Democrats depict Republican presidents as dumb; Republicans see Democrat leaders as immoral libertines. When there is a rare exception like Nixon, who can hardly be termed dumb, Democrats characterized him as mendacious. And if there is a Democrat leader not personally immoral, like Carter or Obama, Republicans paint him as naïve and/or ineffectual.

Perhaps the best bet for adroit historical transition to modern U.S. politics is Teddy Roosevelt, whose bounding energy, intellectual creativity, and squeaky-clean personal life would engage both Jay Leno and mass campaigning.

But I will leave it to Canadians to decide whether John A MacDonald’s semi-alcoholism, Mackenzie King’s dithering mysticism and John Diefenbaker’s bombast would fit into 2013 Ottawa. If those statues on Parliament Hill stepped down from their pedestals, who would follow them?

Can we conclude, rather, that the times bring forth the man? Were the steadfast Washington, the inspiring Lincoln, the reassuring Roosevelt exactly what the United States needed in their eras?

And if that's case, what do we really need for today?

A fascinating recent Leger/Yahoo Canada poll identified that, at least for municipal officials, the most desired quality (40%) was honesty/integrity. This was followed by “good listening skills” at 13% and “work for the good of the municipality” at 9%. Competence finished fourth at 8%. Surely, in the United States, honesty/integrity have hardly been historic values, where the mayors of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles have epitomized corruption. At the same time, they (and the revolving door of mayors in Montreal) are third-echelon mediocrities compared with various African, South American, and Asian kleptocrats. What level of personal probity do we seek, beyond not stuffing Cayman Island accounts with payoffs?

Obama, our current illustration of charisma, demonstrates daily that 'hope and change' have serious limits, dividing rather than uniting Americans.

Would Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford now qualify as “none of the above,” while just-re-elected New Jersey’s equally-weighty Governor Christie epitomize “all of the above” virtues?

Is there a role for charisma any longer? Do Canadians want to be inspired?

Within our modern eras, we have had charismatic leaders: President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Certainly, in comparison to their contemporaries, they were inspirational, dramatic political figures. JFK’s political life was terminated by assassination 50 years ago, but his legend is not surviving the bungled Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion and U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Trudeau dominated Canadian politics for most of a generation, leaving an unnecessary legacy of PET-ulence south of the border, an eviscerated Canadian Armed Forces, and naïve foreign policy proposals.

Obama, our current illustration of charisma, demonstrates daily that “hope and change” have serious limits, dividing rather than uniting Americans.

Thus it is interesting that when faced with economic challenges, Canadians voted for competence with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which they believed he combined with honesty and integrity. It will be fascinating to see whether Senate scandals tarnish his brand sufficiently to lose the 2015 election to the current charismatic figure — Justin Trudeau.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.